Imagine eating a slice of pizza without cheese. Imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe without Iron Man. Imagine your smartphone without a camera. Sure, all those things could still possibly be functional without cheese, Iron Man, and the camera you use to take blurry photos of your meal. But those things won’t be great.
That’s how basketball felt like in the year and a half without Michael Jordan.
After winning three straight championships from 1991 to 1993, Jordan retired from the sport he helped make great to pursue another dream that involved hitting balls instead of dunking them. His No. 23 was retired by the Chicago Bulls and the league moved on without one of its most entertaining, charismatic, inspiring, and important figures.
A Jordan-less NBA wouldn’t last long. After 17 months since that dark day when he said “the desire is just not there any more,” along with many, many words that tried to justify his jarring decision to walk away from basketball, he made his return much simpler: “I’m back.”
20 years ago today... Michael Jordan said (in less than 140 characters): "I'M BACK." pic.twitter.com/FEQBteEMNs— NBA (@NBA) March 18, 2015
Those two words were released on March 18, 1995, and a day later, he was on the court wearing the Jordan Xs—the same shoe Scottie Pippen wore a week prior in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Pippen dropped a clue then, when he put his foot up and called on the camera to zoom in on the Jordan logo, as if it’s the bat signal summoning the superhero.
On March 19, 1995, the superhero showed up. He looked different—an unfamiliar 45 on his back instead of the iconic 23; a tad slower; and without the bounce.
In the Bulls’ very first possession in the Jordan is Back era, MJ had two amazing sequences: a pump fake to send two defenders flying before a missed jumper and his patented fadeaway jumper at the elbow that he also missed. Jordan was that great, even his misses were highlights.
He played for 43 minutes, which was astonishing for someone who missed a whole season and a half to play baseball. He shot 28 times, connecting on seven, and grabbed six rebounds and dished out six assists.
The 19 points and the overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers weren’t very Jordanesque, but the tongue-wagging, the gum-chewing, the wristband, they were all back.
There were moments where Jordan harnessed his basketball powers and flashes of his old self, gliding through the air for a midrange jumper, shined through. But then there were also moments where his legs didn’t have the elevation they’re used to and he was a step slow in defense.
It was Pippen who led the Bulls in scoring with 31 points. The big shots that sent the game into overtime was all Scottie. The Pacers, meanwhile, were led by Reggie Miller’s 28 points.
This game won’t rank in the list of MJ’s greatest games, but it’s definitely one of the most important ones. It was a game that sparked the next chapter of his career. In each and every minute MJ was on the floor, it was clear that the desire had returned.
“I really truly missed the game,” Jordan said at the postgame press conference.
His much-awaited comeback was welcomed with a disappointing loss to the Pacers, just the way it should have been. If we’ve learned anything from watching all things Michael Jordan, it’s that he uses everything as motivation.
Merely 10 days after his return, Jordan scored 55 points against a tough New York Knicks team at Madison Square Garden.
After that scoring outburst, Jordan was asked if he was capable of another 50-point game
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s the fun thing about it. Tomorrow, you don’t know what I can do.”
We know now what Jordan can do: he went on to win three more championships with the Chicago Bulls and deeply influenced entire generations of athletes.
And yes, he did score 50 again, many times after that.